Articles by "Michelle, Author at Adventure Adikt - Page 10 of 11"
May 13, 2012 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Communing with nature: hiking the Grand Canyon part 2

A twist on the popular saying: What goes down must come up. After two days of descending into the canyon, I could think of just one thing: it was time to go up… on an ankle that was most likely broken.  Fabulous.

I was as rested, iced, compressed, [and well, elevated was going to be a problem] as one can be and by 4:30am, with the ankle wrapped, boots tied, and backpack on, I, along with the rest of the group was ready to start the upward climb out of the canyon.

grand canyon floor
One last view of the Grand Canyon floor and the Colorado River that runs through it

I puttered along, using my stick more like a crutch, but putting one foot in front of the other and more or less keeping up with the group. It wasn’t long until we reached the Colorado River and came to my Kryptonite.  I’m not sure why crossing bridges on foot scare the bejeezus out of me, but for some reason, I almost stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and went back the way I came.  The bridge was not the most sturdy [but certainly not what it could have been considering what it is], but what I can only attribute to nerves of steel and some deep, well-hidden vat of courage, I crossed the Silver Bridge to begin the ascent toward the South Rim.

Silver bridge colorado river

silver bridge
The bridge… that caused me to act like a stubborn mule who refused to plow

The early part of the hike followed the Colorado River on a slight incline, alternating shade and sun. Temperature was manageable, probably in the 80s-90s, but the hardest section for me was a series of switchbacks and stairs which nearly brought me to my knees. But I am a stubborn wench, and I refused to be med-a-vac’ed out of the canyon.

One stubborn gal I am

stairs
Stairs that made me want to cry

Five or so hours later, I limped into Indian Gardens, the campground for the night. I debated the wisdom of removing the hiking boots that were acting a a de-facto cast for my ankle. I compromised. One boot on, one boot off. And I elevated, rested, and compressed. Icing was a no-go with the foot still in the boot. But I lunched and rested and later in the day, I took some time to wander around the campground to take some more photos because a good patient I am not. It was much greener than I had anticipated, with a plethora of flowers adding even more color.

grand canyon hike flower
A pretty white flower

grand canyon cactus flowers
pretty red flowers

grand canyon catcus flower
I often say I’m as cuddly as a cactus, but upon seeing these, I might be *slightly* more huggable.

mule corral
Oh look.. apparently there are some of my relatives. Did someone mention being as stubborn as a mule?

Nap, foot propping, photo shoot, dinner, then a short hike up to Plateau Point for the sunset.

plateau point
Perspective.

Sitting on the plateau looking over the canyon gave me perspective on how far we had come in three days and how much of the canyon remained. On the walk back to the campsite, I could see flickering lights far in the distance.

Grand-Canyon-sunset-at-Plateau-Point
a fabulous colorful sunset

Here’s the thing about hiking a canyon: the hardest part comes at the end, when you are the most tired and you have to go up to get to your destination. And because I like to make things extra difficult for myself, I get to hike up and out of a canyon with only one good leg/foot. Yay me.

We were up once again by about 4a eating breakfast, packing up our gear for the last time and getting our feet taped up. I made the executive decision to sleep with my boots on, because I have the feeling that once that left boot comes off, no amount of ace wrap at KT tape will make it fit in again.

tent in the woods
last night of sleeping in the tent for a while

It wasn’t a terribly long and arduous hike from Indian Gardens to the Bright Angel Trail Head. This particular section is popular with day hikers and the like. ANd by 10 am…we were D.O.N.E

indian gardens
More people, more need to display the obvious

A lot of people don’t like for group activities to end. They’ll hang around, take picture with, exchange numbers, and promise to stay in touch. It rarely happens though. For me, though, after being with strangers for four days, I really just want to be alone. However, this time, I had to hang out with people just a little while longer so that I could hitch a ride to the nearest urgent care clinic to confirm the obvious.

bright angel hike
The last hiking I will do for a while, just take it in, OK.

May 6, 2012 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Communing with nature at the Grand Canyon

It was twilight by the time I finally dropped my pack on the ground nearly twelve hours after my day had begun. My legs didn’t ache as bad as I anticipated and my neck and shoulders didn’t pinch the way I feared. Considering how nervous I was in the days leading up to my “rim to rim” hike through the Grand Canyon, I considered Day One a resounding success.

I arrived in Las Vegas four days earlier, jet-lagged, road weary, exhausted and increasingly worried that I would not be able to handle this trek. However, at the orientation meeting the night before, the guides went through our itinerary and emphasized the importance of going at a comfortable pace. With two of them, one would always be at the front and the other at the back, meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting left behind if I went too slowly!  Score!

The group departed Flagstaff shortly before 7 a.m. for the drive to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. After one stop at the Navajo Bridge crossing the Little Colorado River, we arrived at the north rim just after noon.

By just after 1:00 p.m., we hit the trail.

Day 1:  This day’s hike is entirely downhill… 7 miles and drop 4,000 feet! . I was immediately amazed and surprised by the scenery – so much more colorful and so much greener than I expected! The trail was dirt and rock, but not nearly as slippery as I thought it might be. I rarely felt like I would lose my footing. With a fairly narrow trail, my little group of 6 hiked single file.

grand canyon hike
The narrow trail, and my little group making the way one-by-one.

I caught my first glimpse of the agave plant and of tiny circular shaped cacti with flowers of yellow or fuchsia. I had to control my urge to stop at every turn to take pictures!

cactus flower
Cactus Flowers!

As mentioned earlier, the hike didn’t start until about 1p. It was overcast when we started, and like clockwork, soon after the hike began, it started to rain. The rain wasn’t entirely unwelcome as it helped to cool me off. We were already lucky to be walking in the afternoon shade. It was probably the best possible weather we could have asked for. It was just a shower, and unlike at home, the air didn’t turn unbearably humid after the short lived shower, and the skies were clearing as we reached camp.

Home for the night was a campground where we had a group primitive campsite reserved. Nearby was a water fountain with potable water and toilets that, while not flush-able, were at least composting so we could put the toilet paper down. Pack in-pack-out is kinda nasty when that includes carrying around used toilet paper.

grand canyon hike agave plant
Agave Plant!

Day 2 started out with a bang. Literally. It was about 4AM on day 2 of my rim-to-rim hike.  Pitch black dark, chillier than I would have liked, and I had to pee.  I grabbed my headlamp and boots [but didn’t lace them all the way up!] and made my way to the toilets.  No spiders. No scorpions. No snakes.  Completely uneventful until BAM!  The Earth jumped up and hit me square in the face.  I slowly got up and wiped the dirt off my pants. Sitting down at the picnic table in the dark, I aimed my headlamp at my foot to get a good look at my ankle. I had just tripped over a large root between the picnic tables at our campsite, turning my ankle in the process.  It hurt, but nothing major.  I’d sprained my ankle many times in my sports career so I was sure that was what had happened this time. So I applied the ankle brace that I carry with me in my first aid kit on all hikes.  Socks on.  Boots laced up tight, and on my merry way.

The goal was to be on the trail by 5:00, arriving at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon by 9:00 or 10:00, escaping as much of the canyon heat as possible. Despite the early rising, we didn’t get everything together to actually leave camp until after 5:30 a.m. Needless to say, by the time we got going, I was ready to hit the trail.

Day two was another mostly downhill hike, although much flatter than day one. Early on, we made a detour to Ribbon Falls, a small waterfall tucked away several hundred feet off the path.

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 4

grand canyon hike ribbon falls

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 3

grand canyon hike ribbon falls 2

We alternated between shade and sun and followed mostly red dirt paths through the canyon. The scenery continued to amaze me with its diversity and the rocks continued to change as we descended further into the canyon. I smiled at the sight of sparkly quartz along the path – such a contrast to the rough limestone and the red dirt. The final leg into Phantom Ranch and to our campsite at the Bright Angel Campground was the toughest because it was the hottest. Can you say 104F – in the shade! But it’s a dry heat, they say. They can suck it. It was hot as blazes. Luckily, the campsite came with a stone shelter so we quickly dropped our packs and took off our shoes to relax in much needed shade. As I did, I checked out my ankle, which was suddenly throbbing as I removed my boots and brace. The skin around had turned a bunch of pretty colors. And then I realized I could hardly move it. Well,fuck! It suddenly occurred to me this *might* be more than just a sprained ankle.

left ankle
oops!–look at that bruising and swelling

Luckily, Phantom Ranch has a cantina so I was able to buy a bag of ice for me to ice the foot a bit. The campsite was also near a creek so I could sit on the edge and soak my feet in the cold water. Because we arrived so early, I had the whole day free and I took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some alone time – for an introvert like me, it was much needed after being around other people for the last 36 hours. I hung back at camp before heading to the cantina for some air conditioning and lemonade. Then I returned to camp to read, snooze and ice my ankle once again.

Here’s the thing about the hiking the canyon: Personally, I think everybody who can, should. The Canyon is truly one of the wonders of the world; one exhausts superlatives describing it. Every twist in the trail brings a new wonder; one walks in beauty and lives in awe.

The Canyon is also humbling, incredibly so. Our egos, our self importance, our absorption in the fleeting concerns of our lives, all shrink into insignificance before the awesome magnitude of the Canyon. The scale is beyond comprehension; we reveal ourselves to be the tiniest motes of dust within its walls.

The Canyon reminds us not only that we are tiny specks, it tells us that the vanity of our existence is but a blink of an eye. When travelers reach the Canyon’s bottom, they walk among rocks formed 1,800,000,000 years ago. A third of their time has passed in the sterility preceding this planet’s first life. Humans have been around for barely one ten-thousandth of that time; what loosely passes as civilization accounts for only 1/200,000th of that period.

Humility and awe. It’s good for the soul. Hike the Grand Canyon to discover wonders you’ve never imagined, to realize how small we humans really are.

Coming Soon: Communing with nature in the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Jan 8, 2012 - Wanderlust    No Comments

5 steps to survive taking an electric shower

2018 Michelle checking in here:  The electric shower is a scary occurrence in several areas of central/south America.  One one hand, I’m grateful for hot, flowing water; on the other hand, I was seriously scared for my life. BUT figuring out how to work this calamity was one of my greater travel achievements.  I don’t think there will be electric showers in Rwanda, but if there are, it’s OK. I’ve figured that out once before.

It's a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die

The shower in my hostel in Bogotá. It’s a toss-up: You may get clean; you may die

Either this was such a traumatic experience for me before that I’ve put it out of my memory or this is some Colombian designed torture device; this is what greeted me the morning after my arrival to Bogotá.

It’s a large electrical time bomb hanging above my head; luckily all the ends of the electrical wires were covered in electrical tape. I have since found out that this is not always true nor is this device confined to Colombia.

5 steps to surviving an electric shower

  1. Is it high enough so that you will not hit your head?  I’ve had problems with showers before that were mounted for people no taller than 5 feet tall. Luckily, all the electrical showers I’ve encountered are way up there out of the way of an errant splash.
  2. Are there any bare wires that could come in contact with water?  Did you bring electrical tape?  If not, a  wash cloth and the sink might be the best option.
  3. Get naked. Do your thing, and get out.  If you have rubber soled sandals, wear them.  This is not the time to reminisce about the day.  Chances are the water won’t be at optimum temperature anyway.  The only way I’ve found to control the temperature of the water is to control the flow of the water.  There’s a science-y explanation for this but essentially the water needs time to roll through the metal plumbing to heat it up before it before comes out.  So you can have warm water flowing like maple syrup in winter or cold water flowing like a fire hydrant.  But not both. Your choice.
  4. If the pop off valve does indeed pop off– DO. NOT. SCREAM. Like I did the first time this happened to me. Uninvited visitors will show up and cause some slight embarrassment.  It is supposed to keep water from spraying up into the wires which could save your life,. However, I have found that they just pop off whenever they feel like it.
  5.  Yay! You are clean, but also soaking wet.  How to turn off the faucet?  You will only reach for the metal knobs once before muscle memory kicks in and you will remember why you never want to do in again. Nobody in these parts have ever heard of grounding wires.  My suggestion is to have a small towel–hand towel sized–that you use for turning off the knobs.

No need to fear the electrical, non-grounded shower.  I, like several before me have survived; you can survive it too.

 

Nov 6, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Sliding through Suriname

Most people would struggle to place Suriname on a map, often even placing it on the wrong continent [I don’t know; it just sounds African]  Suriname is South America’s smallest country, and I’d wager that if I asked 10 people, at least 5 wouldn’t be able to point it out on a map [and I’m being generous].  I never planned on popping in Paramaribo, but the chance go truly go off the beaten path lured me in.  As a former Dutch colony, you’ll see places like Onafhankelijkheidsplein on street signs and maps [that really just means public square], but as a Caribbean country you’ll hear languages like English, Creole, Dutch Indonesian, and Chinese. This little gem, formerly Dutch Guiana, sits in the upper corner of South America, between Venezuela and Brazil and more specifically between its colonial brethren, Guyana and French Guiana.  The mix of culture, food, language and architecture makes for a very interesting city, reflecting influences from Dutch colonization, Indonesian workers, West African former slaves, Indian workers, Chinese laborers and many more.  The mix of races, religions and languages doesn’t work for many cultures, but from the small glimpse that we saw, Paramaribo does a remarkable job in making it work.

Parbo, as it’s called, pulls together influences from many different cultures, and it somehow seems so effortless.  Locals switch back and forth between 2 and 3 languages, mosques sit next to temples, synagogues and churches, streets are lined with Indian, Creole, Chinese and Javanese food, along with a McDonalds or fried chicken shop to round things out. As a tiny historical fact, Suriname gained notoriety as being the area that the Dutch traded for in exchange for the UK acquiring some land in North America [ever hear of New Amsterdam?  No, how about New York?]

(On Sundays, locals gather on Independence Square to face off in a bird chirping competition.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Wagers are placed and the birds face off in a chirping/singing competition.  Unfortunately, we missed the actual event, but we showed up just in time to see a few of the cages of small birds still set up in the plaza and being slowly loaded away for next week’s match-up.)

Waterkant

The inner city of Paramaribo is designated a Unesco World Heritage sight for it’s mix of architecture and preserved history.  Also there is a tremendous amount of wooden structures that one would not necessarily associate with the Caribbean.

The mosque… that shares a corner with a synagogue

I’m sure things are not 100% perfect, but the way the city finds a way to blend so many different cultures, races and religions is most impressive.  True ecumenical spirit is hard to find these days. And by these days I clearly mean 1723–which is when the synagogue was built.
What would a former Dutch colony be without bicycles?  Paramaribo has a plethora of them .The Dutch also added to their legacy by building a large series of canals to help drain the city, part of which sits below sea level… not unlike another Dutch city that starts with an A and ends with dam.)
The palm gardens [Palmentuin] are just behind the presidential palace. Back in the day, only the leader and his acquaintances could enjoy the space [because let’ be real, there were no female leaders ‘back in the day’].  However, modern times prevail and the palm gardens are open to the general proletariat such as myself.
Fort Zeelandia has an interesting history. It was originally built in 1640 by the French and was completely made of wood.  It was later captured by the English and  renamed Fort Willoughby. In the 1650s more Dutch settled in the area and in 1667 Dutch Admiral Crijnssen took Paramaribo and recaptured the Essequibo-Pomeroon Colony. The battle which ensued between the English Admiral William Byam and the Dutch Admiral Abraham Crijnssen lasted only three hours. Why? you may ask.  The British ran out of gunpowder and munitions.

Adm. Crijnssen renamed the fort once again, and Fort Zeelandia remained Dutch until 1975 [ because #historynerd].

But Suriname has a dark side too.  It’s relatively unknown to foreigners because most foreigners couldn’t even find Suriname on a map. It’s ‘president’, a dictator really, is also wanted for murder [for his role in the Bloody December of 1982] and by Europol for importing over 1000 pound of cocaine into the Netherlands back in 1999.  But you wouldn’t know this unless you researched the country ahead of time and if the Number 1 Google search for Suriname is ‘Where is Suriname?’, it’s a safe bet would-be tourists don’t know about the king-pin cocaine drug lord/murdered turned president [dictator].  But Paramaribo feels safe; there is no heavy military presence so one would not expect its leader to be a criminal…

Love might be too strong of a word, but I did really like Paramaribo

But I digress…

The area used to be home to a lot of sugar plantations/mills, but when the Dutch pulled out, the sugar industry dried up too.

The Arya Dewaker Temple.  and a message written in Sanskrit—probably something religious.

 

Mar 13, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Huffing and Puffing in Potosi

I am not a tea drinker, but I also don’t like taking medications. However, altitude sickness is no joke. And Diamox was not working. So, I bowed to pressure and tried the local cure for altitude sickness…coca leaves.  At first, the idea of buying coca leaves seems almost rebellious.  After all, coca leaves are the beginning product cocaine.  Drinking coca leaf tea was a novelty for me. It  has a bitter taste; it’s primarily coca leaves and hot water. But being in the world’s highest city requires some concessions, and for me, that concession was ingesting coca leaf–in my case, by chewing the leaves.

Coca leaves became an integral part of my day; I chewed the leaves multiple times a day, and each time, I got a little mental boost–a bit of alertness to soothe the metal sluggishness that goes along with altitude sickness.  In some way, I became addicted to the sticky green masticated leaves–it was the only thing that soothed my altitude sickness and made my stay in Potosi enjoyable.

coca leaf
Sticky, green, masticated, coca leaves…my only salvation from the crushing pressure of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness aside, spending two weeks in Potosi, was a great decision. A better decision, perhaps, would have been to come to Potosi from La Paz instead of the realitively flat Cochebamba.

At 13,500ft above sea level, Potosi will literally take your breath away, but it’s colonial charms will figuratively leave you breathless.

Potosi Bolivia 2

Potosi is a UNESCO protected city and walking around the flat parts of the city, it’s easy to marvel over the beauty of the buildings or wonder what the area must have been like when the Spanish discovered the silver in the Cerro Rico mountain that looms over the city. However, when walking uphill around the city, which is at least half the time, my will to explore was seriously in question. But my desire to explore won out, and while walking down the well-maintained colonial streets it’s easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of the 16th and 17th century when Potosi was one of the world’s richest and had a population larger than Madrid.

cerro rico

On the darker side of things, it’s also easy to imagine the amount of work that mining the silver for which this town gained famed, and how that work would have been done. When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an tremendous cost in human and animal lives and pain and suffering. The Spanish brought an estimated 30,000 African slaves, enslaved indigenous locals, used untold numbers of horse and llama to get the goods to the Atlantic coast to ship to Spain. Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. The mortality rates in the mines were amazingly high, and over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.
It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves.

money machine potosi boliva

So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain to uncover where all that silver went.

The Spanish brought the Catholic Church’s Inquisition to the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the painting below. As per usual, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…

 

Feb 27, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Sailing the high ‘seas’ of Lake Titicaca

I am known for being *somewhat* spontaneous at times.  Other times I suffer from an the lack of ability to make a decision as simple as what I want for dinner.  What can I say, I’m a study in contradictions

After a spontaneous 100 km trek to Machu Picchu, I headed south towards Bolivia.  On my own once again for the first time since arriving in Peru, I wasn’t quite ready for solitude just yet.  Through the traveler grapevine, I’d heard of home-stays on Lake Titicaca, and thought that would be something worth checking out. Onward to Puno. 

Look at that amazingly blue water


Puno,  a small town in the southern Peru, is bordered by Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable body of water. The town, at 12,500 feet above sea level is breathtakingly [and I mean that literally] beautiful. It is alive with bright colors and friendly people. Boats lined with neon colors and shops filled with alpaca sweaters and scarfs give color to the town. The Uros Islands, the man-made floating reed islands, can by spotted from the shoreline and people from all over visit to get a taste of the island traditions.

Puno is small and as such most visitors only stay for a day or two. The main draw to the town is the opportunity to visit the islands and do an overnight tour with a local family. You can, of course,  visit the islands on a day trip, but as it is relatively  inexpensive to do an overnight home-stay, I recommend you do the overnight stay.

The overall experience is pretty touristy, but informative. We arrived to the first island and were greeted by the “Island President” who explained that each island only has room for 5-10 houses, so the families that reside on each island form small committees and work together to remain afloat.

The president demonstrated how each island is anchored down by heavy square blocks of reed roots so they stay in Peru and don’t float to Bolivia.  He also explained that the islands are made up of layers of reeds and a new layer has to be added to the ‘island’ every fortnight. Each island has a committee, and the committee divides the chore of laying out new reed layers between the residents.

How the Floating Islands are made Lake Titicaca Puno

The local economy consists of trout fishing, quinoa, yucca, and potato farming, tourism and artisan handiwork.  Most of the people who live on the islands also have a house in town where they stay during the week and travel to town by speed boat; island residents are not as segregated as they seem.

After a lesson in Uros culture and reed house construction, we were divided into groups and invited in the houses to see an example of island living. The construction was simple and each house is one giant room. Each house is powered by clean energy– an individual solar panel soaks up the bright mountain sun all day and is used to provide electricity to the house.  In the past candles were used, but you can imagine that the fire + straw combo was a bad idea…

The houses contained artisan work and the couple that was showing us around sat silently stitching in the corner.  I felt as there was some pressure to buy something but as I wasn’t headed home, and didn’t need anything, I resisted.  I got a few dirty looks, but I try not to buy things I don’t need just for the sake of buying it.  Maybe had I visited the Uros Islands prior to setting up my apartment in the north, I would have been in the market, but as it was, I was going to be backpacking for at least six weeks and I like to keep my load to a minimum.

Reed boat construction is rather fascinating.  The reeds are rather flimsy and they soak up water quickly so at first glance not the obvious first choice for a vessel to navigate the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.  But someone had the truly genius idea of filling the frame of the reed boat with empty plastic water bottles.  Thus adding a layer of security to the reed frame and second, and just as important, finding a way to recycle some of the overwhelming number of plastic bottles in  Peru.

Best piece of advice during this tour… take minute, set down your camera, find a quiet corner of the island and just sit. Sit and appreciate the beauty of nature. Be. Take time to appreciate the massiveness of the lake, the warm [almost hot] high, mountain sun, the bright blue water and the incredible floating island energy that surrounds you.

 

Jan 30, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Exploring Arequipa over a weekend

Exploring Arequipa

Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru with approximately 1 million city-dwellers, was formed by Spaniards in the 1500’s after conquering the Incas. As you enter the Plaza de Armas at the heart of Arequipa, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into time and place outside of modern day Peru. Surrounded by 3 volcanoes, the view from Arequipa would have been reason enough for the Spanish to settle there. The sillar from these volcanoes is what forms much of the architecture surrounding the Plaza de Armas and crowns Arequipa as the white city. At 7640 ft (2300m) above sea level it is not the highest city in Peru, but it still has an altitude associated with some of the higher cities. If you are coming straight from Lima, you’ll definitely feel it; if you are coming down from Cusco, you’ll hardly notice.

If you’ve been to Machu Picchu, you may think that nothing can top that.  And while it’s true that Machu Picchu is amazing (or at least I’ve heard it was pretty awesome), but Arequipa can certainly hold its own and is well worth exploring and a great starting point for many other outdoor adventures in the area. Want to hike into a canyon?  Or go white water rafting?  Or explore volcanoes?  Arequipa is the perfect place for all that. Want to learn about the naughty nuns?  The ice princess? Or are you OK with just people watching.  Once again, Arequipa is the answer.

My weekend in Arequipa went something like this:  People-watching, nerding out on history, hiking down the world deepest canyon, people watching, and market exploring.  My sole reason for coming to Arequipa was to visit Colca Canyon.  I am not missing out on another awesome hiking expedition

One of my favorite things to do is just hang out in the square and people-watch, and the Plaza de Armas is the best place to do just that.

Nerding Out Part One: The Santa Catalina Monastery is one of the main tourist attractions in Arequipa and anytime I can get a glimpse of nuns behaving badly, I’m all in.  As a bonus, the cafe was serving apple pie and lemonade so I indulged my appetite after indulging my nerdy side.

Nerding Out Part Two:  After the monastery, I checked out the Andean Museum to see the “ice maiden” Juanita – the body of a young Inca girl found completely preserved (frozen) at the top of a nearby volcano.  To go in, you have to do a guided tour, which includes a 20 minute video about the discovery of the body.  The guide told us about the sacrificial rituals and the other artifacts found with Juanita’s body.

Day Two and Three:  Hiking that massive canyon

Day Four: More exploring Arequipa walking to the neighborhood of Yanahuara and its plaza for views over the city and of the El Misti volcano.  Market exploring and market eating.

Those view were well worth the walk up and Arequipa is definitely worth the time if you happen to be in southern Peru.

 

Jan 23, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

Naughty Nuns of Santa Catalina

It’s no secret that I’m a history nerd. Throughout school, history was always my first choice of electives.  Need a religion credit– Catholic History and the secret lives of Monks and Nuns was a much better choice than Old Testament 101. My favorite time period depends on my mood and sometimes my location.  I have written a thesis about the Mayans of Mexico, a lengthy paper about the Witches of Salem, and traced Spanish explorers around the world.   My interest in English history began while exploring/ living in England and German/Prussian/Austria-Hungarian history while hanging out in those countries.  I was a kid and somewhat remember the Yugoslavian conflict and was fascinated while walking around Belgrade/Zagreb, Serbia, and Montenegro.  Italy is a history nerd’s dream, and Greek military history is fascinating [and a perfectly good reason to visit Greece]. My year long plus jaunt around South American had me dabbling in history of its countries, and there is much more to the continent than Incas, narco-terrorists, and dictators.  Enter Peru and its colonial history.

Arequipa is a #historynerd’s dream and is a great place for anyone who loves history.  If you don’t love history, but like pretty buildings, it’s good for that too. And if you’re overloaded on all things Machu Picchu, come to Arequipa; it’s like the Incas never existed. I went without any fixed plans and was content to wander and enjoy its colonial structures.  Arequipa might be my favorite Peruvian city. Lima, the capital, is rough, gritty, and crowded. Arequipa is more refined. Cajamarca, in the north, has interesting history as well, but overall  Arequipa, having better infrastructure, is just a bit better suited to travelers; it’s quieter, cleaner and moves to a slower pace.  It is just my style.

I always thought that had I been born in a different time and place I would have been a nun. Not necessarily because I’m a devout Catholic or would honor vows of purity, chastity, or poverty, but because nuns were the original bad-asses.  In societies where marriage was a means to an end, nuns spat in the face of that. And they were bad-asses in the health care arena too.  Yep, had I been born in the 1500’s, a nun was a much better deal than serf or some lord’s wench.

It’s with that mindset that Santa Catalina was high on my list of places to visit on my stop in Arequipa. Built in 1579, the monastery is a huge mini city within the city that was founded by the Dominican Second Order nun, Maria de Guzman. The Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena was initially meant for rich upper-class women from Spanish families [I would have had to settle for a bit more spartan monastery] and each family would have to pay a dowry upon their daughter entering the monastery. Some dowries were as expensive as 2,500 silver coins which would be the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency.  For their dowry, each nun got up to 4 slaves to do their daily chores but were also required to bring things like paintings, intricate tapestries, clothes, and other things would make the environment quite luxurious.  Nothing like the message “God is #1, but luxury is a close second.”  Maybe they didn’t get the memo that avarice was one of the seven deadly sins.

But gluttony and lust were equal pursuits

It was also pretty common for the nuns to throw extravagant parties in their quarters and rumor has it there are tunnels that connect to a local church so Mother Mary wasn’t the only invited guest.  On even more scandalous note, there are stories of pregnant nuns and monk baby daddies were fueled by the allegation that a baby’s skeleton was found encased within the monastery walls. [The Catholic Church denies the claims.]

The Santa Catalina Rave raved right on for nearly 300 years until 1871 when Pope Pius IX sent a strict nun [read: not part of the cool kids] to shut down the party at the Santa Catalina social club. Uncool nun also freed all the servants and slaves [OK, that part was cool] and sent all of the coins, paintings, tapestries, ect back to the Catholic Church in Spain in order to  reform the monastery.

The monastery is constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone quarried locally and painted blue and orange within. The convent is considered the most important and impressive colonial structure in the city. Since Peru is known for its earthquakes, these continual earthquakes and tremors have forced changes in the structure of the monastery and thus is has some singular architectural characteristics.

In the 1960s, the monastery suffered significant structural damage due to two earthquakes that struck Arequipa. The 20 remaining nuns voted to open the monastery up to the public as a tourist attraction; it was opened to the public on August 15, 1970–a mere 430 years after the city of Arequipa’s founding. The nuns used the funds to pay for restoration costs, install electricity, and install running water.

These days #historynerds like me can freely roam around the beautiful grounds and learn about the naughty nuns that loved to have a good time. And for the navigationally challenged– there’s an interesting twist.   From the instant you walk in – you can only make left turns. I spent 5 hours wandering the monastery only making left turns.  It’s impossible to get lost, and for someone like me, who likes to wander and not pay attention to which direction I came from, it’s a godsend.

Jan 16, 2011 - Trail Tales, Wanderlust    No Comments

Adventures in Colca Canyon

Like many things I do, my trek to Colca Canyon was not carefully planned; it was more of a spontaneous impulse.

I arrived in Peru mid-March hell-bent on hiking Machu Picchu.  The universe was equally hell-bent on making sure that didn’t happen. As always, the universe won.  I poked around Cusco for a while, contemplating where to go next. Arequipa seemed like a logical place.  It has everything I look for in a destination: history, interesting architecture, something special in the vicinity that you can’t find anywhere else.

Enter Colca Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world, and home to the world’s largest and most romantic bird:  the Colca Condor.

The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet, can live to be 100 years old, and mates for life.  In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

After poking around Arequipa for a few days, I headed out to Cabanaconde, a small town nestled in a chasm deeper. I had nowhere to be until May so I planned on doing a little hiking/backpacking in the area knowing that I’d be back in Peru in the fall [technically, I suppose I mean spring since seasons are reversed] I had just returned from a short day hike and was admiring the view of the canyon while sipping what would become one of my top five all-time favorite alcoholic beverages–a maracuya sour– when I saw it far off in the distance.  What ‘it’ was was a small white waterfall standing out against a wall of green. At that moment, I knew that I’d have to get a lot closer, and I wasn’t leaving the canyon until I felt that cold water on my feet

 As it turned out, the white blip was the Huaruro waterfall, a 250-foot behemoth accessible from the small village of Fure on the opposite side of the canyon.  A hiker and explorer by heart, a mountaineer I am not. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with the curse of self-awareness, and knew that getting there completely on my own was so far outside my comfort zone it would not be advisable to try.  Enter my new best friend, Jose [maybe not his real name, but he answered to it]. As a solo female traveler and even more so as a solo female adventurer heading into a canyon where I could be raped and dismembered and left for the condors to eat, I have to trust my gut when meeting guides.  After all, I am literally putting my life in their hands–at least for a few days. I met my tiny Quechua guide the day before and maybe he recognized my hesitation since he invited me to meet his family.
Meeting the family put me at ease that this wasn’t some serial killer trying to get me alone and away from civilization.  Dinner was potatoes and meat, probably alpaca–I didn’t ask–and chincha, a drink I’ve already come to loathe, and conversation was probably 75% Spanish and 25% Quechua. Don’t worry, I didn’t know I could understand Quechua either, but apparently having studied/lived with Mayans 10 years ago

After dinner, the women-folk did their cleaning up and Jose and I discussed the particulars of the trek. We would start at 7:00 in the morning, and hike from Cabanaconde down to the bottom of the canyon [a descent of approximately 3,300 feet]. After that, we’ll cross the Colca River, have lunch in Llahuar, hike up about 1,650 feet to the town of Llatica and then continue up another 600 feet to Fure, where we would sleep that first night.

The next day, we’d set out for the waterfall and then hike back down the canyon to the Sangalle oasis, where we’d spend the night. Then, early in the morning of the third day, we’d leave the oasis to hike up back to Fure and on day 4, it’s back to Cabanaconde and civilization.  Looking back, I’m grateful I’d mention up front that I wanted to go slow since I’d would be taking a lot of pictures because Jose said in the past, this had always been a 3-day trek for him.

Jose said he didn’t do this route often; not many guides did since most people just wanted to see the canyon, but for 4 days he charged me $50. Food was extra, but in reality still only amounted to another $25 for the two of us for the four days. So $75 total for four days of guiding, food, drink, and our one night in a shelter.  What a deal. Fortunately, or maybe not, I had no idea of what I was in for.

Colca Canyon Sunrise.

Into the canyon

The next morning, I was up at 5 for breakfast and last minute backpack arranging. As promised, Jose arrived promptly at 7 and off we went. We walked through the town of Cabanaconde, passing an empty bullfighting ring and the goal of an abandoned soccer stadium. From there, we descended into the canyon.

I was weaving my way down Colca Canyon, slowly– little by little, when I caught my first glimpse of the Colca River. This glistening sliver of hope encouraged me that I was getting closer to reaching the bottom of one of the deepest canyons on the planet and helped me carry on.

Almost immediately, Jose started pointing out all kinds of indigenous herbs and fruits. A plethora of plants with a variety of uses grow in the canyon: muña for indigestion, cactus fruit for asthma and jatupa for insecticide, for starters. The canyon also hosts an incredible bounty of fruit. Peaches, apples, papaya, several different types of squash, lucuma, corn, mango and figs all flourish there. And you know this just fed my little nerd heart so much.

Five hourse later, we crossed the rushing Colca River and arrived at Llahuar, a small settlement consisting of two guesthouses, where lunch was a hearty heap  of protein in the form of trout, and the requisite unidentifiable soup with a mass of avocado or potato in it, and rice.  The view was simply amazing–an overlook of the convergence of the Colca and Huaruro rivers.

 

After lunch, more hiking, this time up as we ascended to the town of Llatica, a sleepy place with a rundown church. At the end of the first uphill leg of our trip, I was completely winded. I maintain that this was due to the altitude (about 12,000 feet), not the fact that I was, well, a bit out of shape.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Right outside Llatica, we met the bearer of bad news. A group of three Peruvians guys told us the path to Fure had been blocked by a rockslide, and we’d be unable to continue. Specifically, one of the guys said that I wouldn’t be able to cross the affected path, which was now apparently a heaping pile of boulders. I am at most most effective [and stubborn] when someone tells me that I can’t do something. The guys pointed out a different trail, one that went almost to the top of the mountain and then descended to Fure.

I, of course, was not in favor of this option, considering the dire state of my knees and lungs. However, if we reached the rock slide and couldn’t get around it, we’d have to return all the way to Llatica in the dark for the night. Night hiking is not my favorite. By this time, it was already 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d been hiking since 7A and sunset would be about 6P. If I’d been smarter, I would have suggested staying in Llatica for the evening and re-evaluating my options. I wasn’t smart.

Thinking about what to do

Obstacle surmounted–chasing waterfalls

We soldiered on to  Fure where we met a young teenager who seemed more confident about our chances with the rock slide. The catch, though, was that we’d have to rock-climb up a 20-foot chasm in the mountain. There were no ropes and no harnesses, and there certainly was no emergency room close enough to make any difference. Rock-climbing has never been an interest of mine, and now I’m mentally cursing myself for never having visited a rock-climbing gym. And I was tired.  Bone-tired, but I was not at a place to stop.

By the time we got to the slide, I was running on fumes. The path ended and in its place stood a substantial rock face, which there was now no choice but to climb. On either side of the rock slide, the mountain shot straight up and dropped straight down, so there would be no walking around the boulders.

My new friend took my backpack up the crevice. Then it was my turn. My new friend and Jose told me where to put my feet and hands, and I inched up the mountain. About 15 feet up,  I got stuck. For nearly a minute, I balanced on one toe on the crack in the rock, using three fingers to grip the rock above my head. I held myself there, paralyzed, unsure whether my next move would hoist me up or land me with a broken leg.

Honestly, though, the climb was almost a relief, because I was able to make use of my arms in addition to my legs. With one big heave that involved placing my other foot on the rock above my hip and hoisting myself up, I cleared the worst of the climb. From there, just two more moves took me to the top. My new friend (I never got his real name) helped me up at the end, and Jose scrambled up quickly behind me like the native pack mule he is.

We picked up the trail again on the other side of the rockslide, and from there, we crossed a rickety bridge to Fure, where we were shown to our room for the night: a mud hut with four walls, a dirt floor and a mattress propped up on bamboo and logs.

Main Street–Fure

After a long soak in the town’s natural spring and a dinner of soup, squash puree and white rice, I went to bed and slept like a dead animal until sunrise the next day.

The Waterfall

After a relatively mild hour-and-a-half hike, we approached the waterfall. At first, all we could see was a watery mist drifting up into a vivid green pasture. Then we turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the foot of a mass of water plunging to the ground. The vegetation was dripping wet from the mist, and the noise from the water’s 250-foot drop silenced our conversation.

The hike to Sangalle oasis was thankfully, drama-free.

Colca Canyon has more to offer than resounding views and an oasis.  It has the power to challenge us both mentally and physically whilst giving us strength and a connection to the world around us.

 

 

 

Jan 9, 2011 - Wanderlust    No Comments

In search of the world’s largest bird

When you think of birds, what usually comes to mind?  For me, it’s cute little feathered things like hummingbirds, cardinals, or wrens.  Rarely do I think of owls as birds although I guess technically they are.  Then there are large birds like eagles and vultures, but I rarely see them.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

When I heard that the world’s largest bird was in Colca Canyon, I made it my mission to not only see it, but also find out all I could about this magnificent bird.

It’s often hit or miss to see these birds, but there is a stop on most tours to the Colca Canyon at the Cruz del Condor.  It’s often the best place to get a glimpse of the bird in flight.

Fast facts about the Condor

  • The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet.
  • It can live to to be 70 years old, but the average lifespan in the wild is about 50 years.
  • The bird can weigh up to 30 pounds and is nearly 4 feet tall!
  • Due to its size, it prefers an environment where loft can assist its flight. Under the right conditions, the bird can fly to a height of 18,000 feet.
  • Both parents care for the babies and baby condors stay with their parents for 2 years.
  • They reach adulthood around 7 years old.
  • The condor mates every other year and only lays one egg at a time.
  • The condor eats carrion and eggs; it is not a threat to any type of wildlife.
  • Condors are currently on the endangered species list due to over-hunting.
  • The condors, are more specifically, the Andean Condor, is the national symbol of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

and my favorite fact about these massive birds…

  • Condors mate for life.

In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.